Snowden a thank-you note to secrets-leaker

Movie | Oliver Stone portrays Edward Snowden as an innocent whistleblower
by Bob Brown
Posted 9/19/16, 01:53 pm

Director Oliver Stone typically doesn’t intend his historically based films to play as straight documentaries. Early on, he nails down his story’s heroes and villains and then weaves facts around those pegs. Snowden, a “dramatization of actual events that took place between 2004 and 2013,” adopts that framework. From the get-go, Stone seems to enshrine Edward Snowden as the Greatest American Hero, putting little focus on how Snowden’s actions might damage national security in the long run.

The film opens in early June 2013 as 29-year-old Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a former senior advisor with the CIA doing contract work for the National Security Agency (NSA), meets in Hong Kong with journalists from the British newspaper The Guardian. In a series of flashbacks, Snowden recounts his discharge from the Army (after he breaks his legs), acceptance into the CIA, and postings around the world. His extraordinary analytical aptitude lands him top-secret clearances and special assignments. But Snowden slowly becomes disenchanted by what he feels is the American intelligence community’s overreach.

“You didn’t tell me we were running a dragnet on the whole world,” Snowden protests to Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans), his CIA mentor.

Snowden discovers the U.S. government is tapping directly into the servers of corporations like Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, and Apple; planting sleeper malware on allies’ infrastructure computers in case friendly relations falter; and tracking every cellphone call around the planet. He also learns the CIA and Air Force are jointly using a data-backup program he wrote to drone-strike terrorists’ cellphones—without it always being clear who’s holding the phone. Although not a nail-biting thriller, the film (assuming it’s accurate) does pull the curtain back on the government’s vast domestic and international internet surveillance. The film’s revelations will vex some viewers but instill gratitude in others.

When Snowden realizes the Obama administration isn’t honoring campaign promises of greater transparency, he decides to act. Snowden provides evidence to The Guardian of American intelligence organizations’ global data mining and intentionally false testimony before Congress. Snowden says he isn’t trying to harm his country, which he claims he could have done in an afternoon by shutting down the entire surveillance system.

In fact, Snowden says he wants an informed public to judge his actions, though this weekend’s box office returns suggest relatively few people care anymore. Still, Stone bolsters Snowden’s case for a presidential pardon, playing up his innocent persona throughout the film: Snowden’s colleagues refer to him as Snow White, and he shyly turns away whenever his girlfriend (Shailene Woodley) photographs him.

Snowden and Stone apparently figure the greatest threat to America doesn’t lie in the machinations of Moscow, Tehran, or Beijing, but in restrictions to digital privacy. Presenting no evidence the U.S. government maliciously uses collected data against its citizens, however, Snowden (rated R for language and some sexuality/nudity) doesn’t make the case that America’s intelligence community is doing anything other than thwarting potential terrorist attacks.

Bob Brown

Bob is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute’s mid-career course.

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  • Sawgunner's picture
    Posted: Mon, 09/19/2016 08:27 pm

    The Daniel Elsberg of the digital age!

  • stephenc
    Posted: Mon, 09/19/2016 09:14 pm

    From the article: "Presenting no evidence the U.S. government maliciously uses collected data against its citizens, however..."

    "Maliciously using collected data" IS NOT THE STANDARD FOR WRONGDOING.

    The standard comes from a little thing called the Fourth Amendment:

    "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

    The standard is that if they don't have probable cause, and a warrent, and a specific target, the search is illegal.

    The issue isn't "Is the government maliciously using information it collects by spying on its citizens?" The issue is, "Is the government following the clear and unambiguous laws that are supposed to bind it?" If the answer to that is "No", then the government is already doing something wrong, and has demononstrated a disgregard for wrong and right that does not suggest it will remain above malice for long.

  •  Greg Mangrum's picture
    Greg Mangrum
    Posted: Mon, 09/19/2016 09:32 pm

    Well said!

  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Tue, 09/20/2016 10:05 pm

    Snowden appears to be blinded by the righteousness of his cause.  He claims to have "carefully considered" which documents to divulge, but revealed things far beyond what affects our Consitutional rights, damaging our international spying capabilities.  His sojourn in Russia troubles me, too.  That made him vulnerable to, if not cooperative with, the apparatus of a potential national enemy.  I am not part of the lynch mob, but believe that he has done more harm than good.